Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a Bangkok-based regional human rights group, together with its member organisation, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), urged the government of Malaysia to drop its latest charges under the controversial Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) 2012 against four individuals, including Thomas Fann, the Vice Chairperson for South of Peninsula Malaysia of the electoral reforms group, BERSIH. FORUM-ASIA and SUARAM further reiterated their call for the repeal of the PAA as well as other restrictive laws that suppress fundamental freedoms in the country.
Fann, along with Koh Jit Huat, Mohd Salleh Ahmad and Steven Choong, will face charges at the Criminal Sessions Court in Johor Bahru on 20 April 2014, under PAA’s Section 4(2)(b) for gathering at a restricted area, and Section 9(1) for failing to notify the police 10 days prior to a candlelight vigil held in May 2013 for Adam Adli, who was then detained under the Sedition Act.
“The said candlelight vigil was organised peacefully, and lasted merely 30 minutes, without any disruption or damages to public property. To charge the four organisers for a candlelight vigil that went on peacefully reveals the government’s unchanging behaviour in its use of draconian laws to persecute and harass dissenting groups and individuals,” said Evelyn Balais-Serrano, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.
FORUM-ASIA and SUARAM have opposed the PAA since the law was introduced. The two groups have previously warned that the PAA is open for abuse by the government to restrict the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, criminalise dissent, and persecute human rights defenders and political activists, especially those critical of the government and its policies.
FORUM-ASIA in a fact-finding mission to Malaysia in 2013 gathered that the government’s purported rationale behind the 10-day prior notification procedure is to take necessary measures for the maintenance of public order and the protection of the rights and freedoms of other persons. However, FORUM-ASIA has observed that this procedure only serves in reality as an authorisation mechanism effectively excluding any possible spontaneous assemblies.
“This latest case reinforces our initial observation about the PAA. Charging organisers on the grounds that they did not notify the police, especially when no issue of public order or violations of the rights of others had arisen, is unacceptable,” said Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director of SUARAM.
“It is now clear that the 10-day ‘notification’ procedure under the PAA is a replacement only by name of the previous requirement of police permits for assemblies under the now repealed Section 27 of the Police Act,” added Yap.
The PAA has been heavily criticised by human rights groups and experts both domestically and internationally. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association had in his previous two reports to the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2013 expressed concern over the restrictions posed by the PAA on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Malaysia. During the recent review of Malaysia’s human rights record under the Universal Periodic Review process of the UN Human Rights Council, recommendations for the reform of the PAA were also made, but they were rejected by the Malaysian government.
Both groups charged that the Malaysian government has in the past year, especially since the ruling party’s reduced support in the 2013 General Elections, intensified its offensive against the opposition as well as dissenting groups and individuals, including human rights defenders. The regional group cited the recent conviction of opposition leaders, Anwar Ibrahim under trumped up charges of sodomy and the late Karpal Singh under the Sedition Act, as well as the charges under PAA faced by several opposition leaders for organising rallies in 2013 in protest of allegations of electoral irregularities, as prominent examples.
“We reiterate our call for the PAA to be repealed together with all other draconian laws that restrict fundamental freedoms in Malaysia. We urge the government to immediately drop all charges under the PAA, including the latest case of persecution against the four organisers of the May 2013 peaceful candlelight vigil,” stressed John Liu, FORUM-ASIA’s South & East Asia Programme Manager.